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We met ten year old Hayley, seven year old Kaitlyn and their mum Kerryn on DCA’s Deaf Aboriginal Cultural Youth Camp in May 2016. As Kerryn told us, “The camp literally changed my girls’ lives for the better. It has shown all of us that the future can still be bright with the right help. I saw my girls in a different light – I saw the potential they have if those around them really understand them for who they are. We will absolutely never forget this.”

Hayley, Kerryn and Kaitlyn who felt on camp “like we belonged”.

Hayley and Kaitlyn also have autism and an intellectual disability, and Hayley has just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and personality disorder. She has not been able to attend school for the past few months so Kerryn has been on long service leave to care for Hayley “24 hours a day, seven days a week”.

“They felt like they belonged for the first time” – Kerryn

Kerryn explained Hayley and Kaitlyn’s needs and what a difference Deaf Children Australia has already made in their lives: “Hayley gets frustrated when she has communication difficulties and she feels people don’t understand her. She can become emotionally overloaded and simply withdraw into herself at times. Hayley then refuses to talk, takes her hearing aids out and only communicates by text. Or when she gets really stressed, Hayley may experience psychotic episodes and begin to scream and hurt herself. These psychotic episodes have released toxins into her brain, causing permanent damage. Her IQ has dropped significantly in the last year and her hearing has also reduced by 40 per cent. As a parent, it is devastating to see Hayley go through this.

And as a trained teacher, I was so aware that she was increasingly struggling to grasp concepts at school. Hayley had a visiting teacher for only an hour a week and she just didn’t have adequate support to address her needs. We told the teachers they needed to use the FM system to enable her to focus on their words, and they needed to write instructions down for her, but it wasn’t happening. Hayley was often so anxious at school that it became a negative environment for her. We have needed to support Hayley at home since then. We are trying to get her into the special school Kaitlyn is attending because Kaitlyn’s pretty well supported there.

Hayley and Kaitlyn have never felt understood with their deafness or their other health issues. On Deaf Children Australia’s camp, they felt like they belonged for the first time. Hayley said, ‘I never make friends but I have so many friends here’. It was like everyone there took the time to get to know and understand my girls. Hayley and Kaitlyn didn’t feel left out like they so often do. Hayley had a broken leg but everyone helped her all the way on our bush walk and took turns pushing her wheelchair over the rough dirt track so she could see the cave paintings. We all felt united like one big family. I have never experienced that before in my life.

Some of our new friends started teaching us sign language and gave us sign names. We have all linked up on Facebook so now Hayley, Kaitlyn and I have those friends all around Australia who are deaf and Aboriginal…. who understand. Hayley and Kaitlyn feel connected to their culture for the first time in their lives and are so proud of their heritage.”

A stronger sense of identity

Now, Hayley and Kaitlyn have begun to feel more comfortable with who they are – being deaf, having autism and other challenges. Feeling understood can make an enormous difference in every child’s life. We are beginning to provide services to them such as mentoring, communication skills, family support, and recreation activities. We can also provide psychological services and Auslan instruction to the whole family.